CD Review of Who Killed Amanda Palmer? by Amanda Palmer
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Label
Roadrunner Records
Amanda Palmer:
Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

Reviewed by James B. Eldred

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A
manda Palmer is one half of the the Dresden Dolls, the self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo who attracted the attention of every “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fan with their 2003 self-titled debut and the equally impressive follow-up Yes Virginia. Palmer is the sole songwriting force of the Dresden Dolls, with Brian Viglione serving only as backup, playing drums and whatever else is required of him. So the idea of an Amanda Palmer solo album may be a little confusing. But artists go solo to liberate themselves from the confines of their band, and what could be more confining than limiting yourself to a genre that is so specific that you had to create a name for it? The Dresden Dolls are the flag bearers of the punk cabaret sound, and their fans expect nothing more or less from them. But Amanda Palmer doesn't have any strict musical guidelines attached to her name, so by “going solo” she's free to explore a more diverse sound on her debut album Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

While she may be recording under a different name, and Brian may by on hiatus, the passion of the Dresden Dolls remains in full force. “It Runs In The Family” could easily be called “Girl Anachronism Part II,” as Amanda passionately pounds on the keys with unbridled intensity while relating her (and her “friends”) present problems to past relations. Everything from seasonal depression to her desire “to open my legs up to anyone who'll have me” seems to run in the family. It’s the kind of self-deprecating wit that Palmer does best.

When Amanda isn't hating on herself, she's turning her venomous barbs outwards. More specifically, Palmer seems to be taking on the role women are supposed to play romantically. “Ampersand” attacks the notion that a woman becomes “one side of an ampersand” once they get married, hiding its feminist rage behind the curtain of a traditional piano ballad. The opener, “Astronaut: A Short History Of Nearly Nothing,” is, if it’s to be taken literally, an angry rant by an astronaut's wife who yells at her star-seeking husband for leaving her and then continues her rapid-fire missive against him even after he dies in a crash landing. At least, that what it appears to be about; it's either about that or it's the most convoluted metaphor since the cake that was left in the rain.

Even the strange cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “What's The Use Of Wond'rin?” from “Carousel” fits the album’s recurring theme of relationships gone wrong. It's strikingly faithful to the original, with Palmer even sounding eerily like Shirley Jones did in the 1967 movie version of the musical. However, when put in the context of the album, the song (which was already a little strange) becomes downright disturbing. Seen by many as a romantic ode to love conquering all, Palmer exposes the dark underbelly of the song and its roundabout condoning of spousal abuse (“What's the use of wond'rin' if the ending will be sad...if he's good or if he's bad”). There hasn't been a creepier feminist re-appropriation of a song since Tori Amos covered Eminem's “Bonnie and Clyde '99.”

But that's not even the creepiest song on the album. That honor would have to go to “Strength through Music,” which tells the story of a school shooter who “saw the world in a web of action and cumshot girls” before packing up his backpack with weapons, putting on his Walkman and opening fire. There's no explanation given, no finale to this grim story and there's practically no music to accompany Amanda's stark, haunting voice as she delivers the cold lyrics, which are occasionally broken up by a repeated mantra of “tick tick tick.” It's powerful, to be sure, but it’s also so dark and disturbing that it's not exactly great listening material.

“Strength through Music” has a message to share, but what it is isn’t exactly clear. The same goes for the rocking “Guitar Hero.” Is it an attack against the game it shares a name with, or something more? Surely the line “X marks the box in the hole in your head” is meant to remind people of Xbox, but the song seems more about videogame-obsessed kids as a whole, especially ones who take their love for FPS games into the real world and are surprised to find that war isn't a game (“How do you get them to turn this thing off? / This isn't at all like the ones back home”).

Amanda Palmer's decision to break free from the Dresden Dolls with this material was wise. While the subject matter (miserable women, violence, a general feeling of unhappiness) would have fit on a Dresen Dolls album, the presentation would not. The songs on Who Killed Amanda Palmer? are layered and dense, with guitars, synthesizers and even an entire horn section working to back up Palmer's bellowing howls and screams. The result is a powerful piece of work, sure to appeal both to fans of the Dresden Dolls and those who find their whole Gothic shtick a bit too weird.

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